For so long now, many have held the Melbourne Storm up as the gold standard of rugby league clubs.
Successful, stable, well managed, brilliantly coached, and able to produce quality players almost out of thin air, or at least from some other club’s discard bin. Former Storm players and management are always in demand, and the best way to get a first-grade coaching gig has been to spend some time in their coaching system.
The Storm are what other clubs aspire to be, and their continued success has been both enviable and difficult to emulate.
Let’s quickly look at what they’ve achieved in their relatively brief and somewhat controversial 24-year history.
– Four Premierships
– Four times runners-up
– Five minor premierships
– Three World Club Championships
– Finalists every year with the exception of 2001, 2002 and 2010 (the year they played for no points due to the salary cap scandal)
That’s a pretty impressive record, even if you exclude the self-inflicted dark years of 2007, 2009 and 2010, in which they had a premiership and a grand final appearance stripped. Interesting to note that even in 2010, if they were allowed to accrue points, they would have finished 5th.
Craig Bellamy, their coach since 2003, is deservedly credited with much of their success, and his phenomenal winning ratio at the Storm of around 70 per cent over some 500 games is far better than that of his super-coach rivals in Wayne Bennett and Trent Robinson. Interestingly though, his winning ratio in representative games doesn’t read so well, at just 22 per cent as NSW’s State of Origin coach; and 33 per cent when in charge of Country Origin. I’m not sure if there’s anything to take out of that, but at Melbourne at least, he’s an undisputed all-timer.
When I look at the Storm’s 2021 season, it’s pretty much a highlights reel all the way – until they ran into the Penrith Panthers in the preliminary final. They had a record-breaking winning streak, and put 40 or more points on the opposition on 12 occasions, but somehow saved their worst performance in attack for the most important time of all, scoring just one try in a thrilling loss at the penultimate hurdle.
Melbourne’s 2021 season raises two questions for me: first, how much of the Storm’s success is down to the genius of Cameron Smith? And second: has the Storm’s purple reign come to an end without him?
Cameron Smith is hailed as the greatest of all time, and deservedly so.
A record number of NRL games, record number of NRL points, legendry captain of both QLD and Australia… the list of his accolades goes on. He was the best in the business at not only controlling the game (and some say the referee), but also making sure that the Storm’s game plan was followed, or tweaked on the run when necessary.
He certainly didn’t need a trainer running around behind him to tell him what to do next. He knew when to run, when to kick, when to pass, when to take chances, when to close out the game and how to get his teammates to go with him.
Smith had an incredible winning record as captain in finals matches, steering the Storm home 24 times in 34 finals for a win ratio of just over 70 per cent – it’s no coincidence that it’s the same figure as Bellamy’s incredible strike rate as coach. He certainly would have made a difference to the Storm’s fortunes in the preliminary final against Penrith.
Yes, the Panthers’ defence was fantastic all game; but Melbourne lacked the calm head and leadership of Smith that they had become so accustomed to, and weren’t able to capitalise on the Penrith errors when they came. Harry Grant played like the 30-odd game, 23-year old rookie that he is; Brandon Smith and Christian Welch were both ruled out of the game before halftime through injury; Jarome Hughes couldn’t spark the attack; and Cameron Munster was, dare I say it, dusty. Co-captains Dale Finucane and Jesse Bromwich toiled hard, but offered little in the way of leadership, at least not to Smith’s level.
If Smith was running the Storm show in that game, Melbourne would surely have turned their half-chances into points, reduced the Penrith ruck speed considerably, and headed to the grand final. They men in purple just aren’t the same side without him.
Nothing lasts forever; all good things must come to an end; every dog has his day.
So can Melbourne maintain their dominance and success? Can they continue to finish in the top four year after year? I think not, and they may well be found out as early as 2022.
Here’s a few reasons why I think this way.
They lack on-field leadership – see the above thoughts on Cameron Smith, and the fact co-captain Dale Finucane will be elsewhere next year. Looking through their ranks, they just don’t have an experienced and effective game manager in their squad.
On top of that, it looks like cracks are appearing in their famous culture. It’s been some years since a Storm player hit the headlines for the wrong reasons – the last was probably Jesse Bromwich – but the recent white powder fiasco saw two of their marquee players in Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith, together with Chris Lewis who featured in 20 games for the Storm last year, publicly face the music for their off-field antics.
That won’t be good for morale, and Munster, as their biggest-name player, may have edged a couple of feet closer to the exit door, with the Storm reportedly having seriously considered giving him the boot.
Melbourne don’t generally lose too many players they want to keep, but I reckon they’ll miss the big three who departed this year in Nicho Hynes, Josh Addo-Carr and Dale Finucane. That trio were instrumental in helping them win the minor premiership, and I’m not sure how they replace quality performers like them in a hurry.
On top of that, the second Brisbane team will be running out in just 18 months’ time for season 2023. They’re going to be cashed up with over $9 million to spend, hitting the player market next year with no existing salary cap baggage to contend with, and 30 first-grade squad positions to fill.
What better place to start the shopping spree than Melbourne, who have ten of their best players coming off contract next year?
Marquee players like Brandon Smith, Grant, Welch and Felise Kaufusi may be tempted to chase the dollars and the sunshine and head back home to Queensland, while others like the Bromwich brothers might also do better financially as their careers wind down by heading north. Even though Cameron Munster is currently signed until the end of 2023, recent events may just see him leave a year earlier if he receives an offer he can’t refuse.
There are some challenges ahead for the Storm, and no doubt they’ll do their best to meet them… but their reign at the top is increasingly looking like coming to an end.